Shades of Green

Stanford students apply design thinking to increase diversity and access in environmentalism

Indira Phukan grew up in Minnesota, a state full of outdoor marvels she thought were mainly for other people.

“Both my parents were immigrants, and they didn’t have a tradition of the outdoors,” Phukan said. “Holidays in national parks is a very American idea. I learned it.” 

Today, as a doctoral candidate in the Stanford Graduate School of Education, Phukan studies how social attitudes as much as material barriers keep many Americans from feeling vested in America’s outdoor spaces. In a Stanford course she co-teaches, Earth Systems 125: Shades of Green: Redesigning and Rethinking the Environmental Justice Movements, students explore how these attitudes are taught and learned, and how they might be changed so that all Americans consider themselves environmentalists.

“True sustainability won’t happen until more people believe in it,” Phukan said. “When more people of color and immigrants are heard and acknowledged by the environmental movement, when environmental lessons are more closely linked to their particular identities, more people will come to the table with more creative solutions for our planet.”

The environmental movement’s lack of diversity worries many people. Eighty percent of the people who visit, work in or volunteer at America’s national parks are white, according to the National Park Service, though non-Hispanic whites make up only 62 percent of the U.S. population.

While an environmental justice movement has emerged that seeks clean air, water and food for all people, Phukan also advocates a larger pipeline presence for minorities in public and nonprofit environmental agencies, and above all to change notions of environmentalism and who practices it. 

In Shades of Green, Phukan and co-instructor Tanner Vea investigate a common notion of an outdoors enthusiast – white, middle-class, using costly specialized gear to conquer a fearsome landscape – and how this notion influences behavior, commerce and policy.

 “If you were in charge, how would you raise the narratives and broaden the definitions of what it means to be outdoors?” Phukan challenged the class. “Who and what would you target for change?”

“The idea was to give students a sense of how theories and academic ways of approaching tough questions play out in real organizational contexts,” said Vea, whose own research applies design thinking to education issues. 

Phukan will speak Feb. 22 as part of Roble Hall’s Hard Earth Speaker Series of Stanford graduate students whose work illuminates the dilemmas of achieving sustainability.


The social right to beauty

In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson proclaimed a social right to natural beauty, accessible to everyone.

“Beauty must not be just a holiday treat, but a feature of everyday life,” Johnson said in urging Congress to pass his water-quality legislation. “It means not just easy physical access, but equal social access for rich and poor, Negro and white, city dweller and farmer.” 

“Even now it seems radical in 2018. I can only imagine what it sounded like in 1965,” observed Andreas Ratteray, a master’s student in earth systems who is taking the class.

Through readings, critiques and discussion, Ratteray and classmates explore how and why the social access Johnson championed has gone unrealized.

They explore portrayals of outdoor life in marketing and social media. They explore attitudes and challenges that keep many people from engaging with nature. They also explore U.S. conservation’s tangled roots in colonialism. What became Yosemite National Park, for example, was “discovered” in 1852 by California state militias seeking to subdue Native Americans who were sheltering there. In Yosemite and elsewhere, the U.S. government eventually expelled indigenous residents to create pristine spaces where paying visitors could enjoy extreme adventures.

In contrast, Phukan suggested, environmental educators can “let people know that being in a park near your house is being outdoors. Gardening is part of interacting with the outdoors.” Though a household might not buy organic, compost or recycle, it might do other environmentally friendly things, such as share tools with neighbors, that educators can use as springboards to talks about conservation. 

“If we did, we could apply conservation biology techniques and definitions to the urban landscape,” Ratteray said. “We could talk about tree canopy and which neighborhoods have more, and where and why to plant trees.” He cited studies that indicate having trees outside people’s houses makes them happier, as well as offering planetary carbon-sequestration benefits.

Eye to cultural awareness

Shades of Green looks at groups like OutdoorAfro that share nature knowledge and fellowship among black hikers and campers. Students read works by geologist Lauret Savoy and geographer Carolyn Finney that propose an environmentalism grounded in African-American experience. 

Finally, they do group projects with environmental education nonprofit NatureBridge and community partners such as the Stanford Community Farm and Cooley Landing, a park in East Palo Alto on San Francisco Bay. The students apply design thinking and Haas Center for Public Service principles to questions of diversity in environmentalism.

“The students interview people in their community partnerships and gain an understanding of their contexts and the challenges they face,” said Vea, an education PhD candidate in Learning Sciences and Technology Design. They use other aspects of design thinking, including brainstorming and prototyping, to develop projects with their partners.

Last year, students designed a guide for local environmental education groups to help them evaluate their programs with an eye to cultural awareness. In 2018, students are working on a food-justice cookbook; an environmental-justice lesson plan for a local nonprofit; toxic-waste analysis and mapping in California’s Central Valley; and community-input sessions for a local environmental education center.

The class arose after Phukan and Vea were 2015-16 Haas Center Graduate Public Service Fellows. Now in its second year, Shades of Green fulfills Stanford’s undergraduate Ways of Engaging Diversity requirement.

     -- Barbara Wilcox

Photo: PhD candidates and Earth Systems 125 co-instructors Tanner Vea and Indira Phukan at Lagunita on campus, where they conducted a recent lesson on learning theory and environmental education.